Tom White’s Naked Nude and the Art of Disturbing Intimacy

Feature / May 2022

Tom White’s Naked Nude and the Art of Disturbing Intimacy

By Olivia Hingley

          I meet Tom at his studio in Angel on a rainy, nondescript Monday morning. Greeting me with a warm smile and a handshake, he readily assures me that he would have given me a hug, had he not already been covered in a smattering of fresh paint. While leading me to a lift, Tom explains the slightly incongruous building we’ve entered to be a disused office block, now entirely comprised of artists studios, divided by makeshift plasterboard walls. Entering his allocated space, the walls are lined with propped up canvases, a healthy array of art monographs sit on metal shelves, and various paints and brushes are scattered across a table top. The skeleton of a painting hangs on the wall, the outline of a face becoming apparent in the expressive, preliminary brush strokes.

We begin our chat by discussing The Bed series, which Tom started and completed over the course of the pandemic. Conceptualised from above, the series focuses downward on figures in bed: some in couples, some alone, some asleep while some sit up, awake and contemplative. The series, Tom elucidates, was intended to convey a sense of “claustrophobia,” and explore how “the bed” — as both a conceptual and a concrete entity — had become a focal point of the pandemic. “The four sides of the bed were almost like four walls, so they constricted the figures within the paintings themselves,” Tom begins, “the physical dimensions of the canvas were then restricting the figures.” Nudity became central to the series: at the time of its inception, Tom was exploring the concept of “The Naked Nude,” practised by the likes of Lucien Freud, Alice Neel, and Jenny Saville. Explaining painting a nude to be “the least erotic thing in the world,” Tom describes The Naked Nude to be more of an “unflinching” look: “It’s nakedeness rather than nudity; it’s complete candidness and honesty.”

Moving on to some of his more recent work, Tom places three pieces on the wall. All focus on concealed sections of the naked body; one shows the upper half of a body from the side, curved in a sitting motion, another depicts a torso straight on, wrapped in an iridescent, translucent deep pink material. Completed under the brief abstraction in figuration, for an upcoming show at Quo Vadis, Tom tells me that while he usually likes having “autonomy” over his work, “it's also sometimes nice to be given a bit of a brief.” But approaching the brief wasn't so simple. Taking “abstraction” literally, Tom initially tried to veer away from his usual technique. Showing me in an initial piece, a hand in earthy colours made up of large, suggestive brush strokes, the work — unlike all of his others — doesn't instantly resonate as one of Tom’s. Eventually allowing himself to align the brief with his instinctive artistic perspective, Tom began creating pieces which pushed an abstract approach while still showing his trademark figurative style.

Switching up the paintings once more, Tom places a recent piece on the wall. From the chest upward, two clothed women lie in bed, one seemingly just awoken, the other still asleep. Through the piece, Tom sought to depict what he describes as “the sense of being up, but not yet risen.” “There’s something incredibly intimate about it, sort of awake and sort of not awake, lounging around”, he says pensively. “Do you know what I mean? For me that's a really poignant, visceral memory, I don’t quite know why.” The painting captures this sentiment perfectly: the warm sun that falls across one side of the bed, the crumpled bed sheets and the sense of calm that is conveyed through the quiet blue tones. Conjuring the sensations and feelings of a lazy, restful Sunday morning, the scene gently places the viewer in the moment, whilst also persuading them to dwell upon similar moments of their own.

It is through this final piece that we come on to the subject of photography. Explaining his parents to be “super” into photography, Tom shares with me that he had originally wanted to be a photographer. Not completely neglecting the medium, Tom now chooses to paint from his photographs. But, it's also an artform he understands to have limitations. “Photography is almost too singular, right? We’re talking about how these capture a singular moment in time, that is you know, a certain second,” he says, “whereas paintings have pasts and futures to them.” Tom's use of photography as a reference point, therefore, is much more of a logistical choice. Almost solely depicting the people closest to him in his paintings, his using a camera allows him to enter his friends’ most intimate spaces, so as to achieve the sensation of “disturbing intimacy,” so palpable throughout his work. “I can’t lug a huge canvas to my mate’s frontroom and get them to sit there for 9 hours, 4 days in a row,” he says matter of factly, “but I can take my camera.”

We conclude our chat quite simply, by discussing the element of Tom’s practice that he most enjoys. Almost instantly he lands upon hearing people’s responses to his work, “and I don't mean that in terms of praise, I mean that in terms of people reading their own dialogues and narratives into the work.” Saying that people often find his work uneasy and sad (something he has no qualms with, “happiness is a very singular emotion, it's sort of disinteresting”) Tom perceives a sort of malaise as submerging his work. This initially surprises me, Tom’s work had not struck me as sad, or tense. But then, when I look up once more, the piece of the two women in bed, still hanging on the wall, has altered. The blue tones, which initially struck me as meditative, have suddenly become melancholic and muted. One of the subjects, initially calm and restful, now instead looks withdrawn, wrapped in difficult thought. This seems to be the defining depth of Tom’s work: its ability to change upon every viewing. With every glance you notice something new, something nestled in his brushstrokes.

Image Credits:
1. Photo by Ollo Weguelin, Courtesy of Tom White.2. Photo by Ollo Weguelin, Courtesy of Tom White. 3. Photo by Ollo Weguelin, Courtesy of Tom White.